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Surviving the Creative Doldrums



If you plan to be a writer for any significant amount of time, you will inevitably hit a stage that I call the “creative doldrums.” Perhaps you’ve already been there. A day, then a week, then a month goes by, and you haven’t written anything. Not a word. There is nary a gust of wind in your artistic sails.  


You might start to worry, then panic, then go into an existential tailspin over whether you were ever a creative person to begin with and whether you will ever have anything to say again. 


This kind of emotional crisis isn’t helped by the kind of world we live in, especially if you are an artist with an online presence. The same social media technologies that allow us to share our work with more people than ever before are also insatiably hungry monsters that will punish us if we don’t constantly feed the beast. The mantra of the algorithm gods is update or be made irrelevant. You have to stay current, keep your fans reminded of who you are and what you’re doing, lest you fall down to the bottom of the feed, or even show up on it at all. 


As you can guess or might already know through personal experience, this can be a pretty nasty headtrip, especially if you rely on your artistic work in some part for your vocational income. 


So what are some things we can do as artists and creators to ride out our own creative lulls? As someone who’s been writing for over twenty years and has faced my own share of dry spells, I’ve learned a few things that will hopefully be helpful. 


Clarify your expectations


There’s nothing like a crisis to help you confront and clarify what it is you actually want out of a situation. I think it’s important for us as artists through the various stages of our career to revisit what our expectations are. Do you want to be a traditionally published author? Are you writing and sharing just for the joy of it? Do you want a social media following? Are you okay with churning out lots of less-than-your-best work, or are you the kind of person that really needs to perfect something before releasing it to the world? Asking these questions of yourself can be tremendously helpful.


Remember that you are not just your art


If you’ve wrapped up your identity and worth in your creative output, hitting a creative lull is really going to mess you up. I think this can be a particular temptation for young, ambitious artists (I’ve been there). If you want to be a healthy artist long term, you are going to have to find a way to recognize the value and importance of your artistic endeavors while also detaching your ultimate identity from how much art you are able to produce and how people receive it. That probably means having a good therapist and good friend and family relationships around you that remind you of your inherent worth, apart from what you create. 


Remember that sometimes life just happens


As author and speaker Jon Acuff has said: “Give yourself grace.” His point is that when we are working on a creative dream, we can often be incredibly hard on ourselves and not recognize the realities of life. Sometimes things just happen that take up our time and energy, and we can’t help it. If you are married and also have kids, or you are bi-vocational, sometimes art is going to have to take a back seat to your other obligations. We won’t do ourselves any favor by further beating ourselves up over our lack of creative output.


Recognize that creativity has seasons


Related to the previous point is the fact that we must recognize the waves of the creative life. No one can constantly create and create well. Life is a balance of work and play, rest and labor. Creative projects, both large and small, have a cycle of inception to realization. There’s a time to receive and a time to give. Sometimes you need to be refilled before you can share with the world once again. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote beautifully in her book Walking on Water, “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of the love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.”


Eat a good creative diet


Creativity is just as much about input as it is about output. I find that other art and beauty helps inspire my art. This might look like reading other poets, good fiction, visiting art museums, seeing great films, listening to good music, taking walks in nature and cities, and visiting inspiring places. Creativity often works like a mental compost pile or a good soup, you’ve got to dump good stuff in there and then let it simmer for a while. 


Keep a long-term perspective


One of the best pieces of creative advice I’ve ever heard was something author Jonathan Merritt said at a writing conference I attended years ago. During a panel discussion, he described the writing life as a “long obedience in the same direction” (quoting Eugene Peterson quoting Nietzsche). We are often more influenced by the culture of “now” than we realize, and we are tempted by delusions that our artistic efforts will attain swift success. The reality is usually more of a long, patient grind of quiet labor. Some may take this as a discouragement, but I believe this can actually be tremendously freeing, because it releases us from the tyranny of the urgent and the nigh-impossible weight of instant success. Besides that, keeping a long-term perspective helps us see those dry spells for what they are, seasons in a long vocational life of creative work.


Continue to “show up”


Now, some of these suggestions could easily be transformed into subtle excuses to justify laziness. Maybe your life is just busy right now—or maybe you’ve poorly managed your schedule. Maybe the well has run dry—or maybe you haven’t done anything to refresh it. Even when ideas aren’t flowing smoothly, or hardly flowing at all, it’s still important to develop a habit of “showing up.” That might mean setting aside some time each day to work or brainstorm, or heading off to a place where it's easier to quiet your mind. Or, it might just involve being ready for when the ideas return.


I share all these bits of advice with you because I’ve found them helpful in my own life. For me, thankfully, the creativity always shows up again when I practice patience, take some pressure off myself, fill up with good things, and continue to “show up”. May these ideas be helpful for you in your own creative dry spell. Remember in the end that it is not about how many poems we wrote or books we published, but whether we offered some small measure of truth and beauty to the world.



 

Chris is a community college English professor in Massachusetts, and is an arts and culture writer whose works have appeared in publications such as, Tweetspeak Poetry, The Curator, The Molehill, and currently on The Rabbit Room. Chris is also the author of several books of poetry, including his latest collection Winter Poems. In 2018 he helped co-found The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, visiting coffee shops, and poking through used bookstores with his wife Jen.


 

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Photo by Math on Unsplash

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